A letter calling for the Obama administration to maintain a commitment to Arab democracy has sparked an energetic and informative debate on promoting democracy in the Arab world. The letter, signed by 140 analysts, practitioners, bloggers, and activists, is discussed on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog.
It is possible for the new Obama administration to cooperate with Arab regimes in pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace while also pushing for human, civil, and political rights for the region’s citizens, argues Carnegie’s Michele Dunne. “In fact, not to do so would be shortsighted and ultimately counter-productive,” states Dunne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin.
Michael Rubin takes issue with the signatories’ advocacy of engaging Islamists. He argues that “before sustainable democracy can take root in the region…the problem of how to strengthen liberalism needs to be addressed.” Invoking the specter of an Islamist electoral victory – one-man, one-vote, one-time – he is worried that “weakening authoritarians so that Islamists can fill the vacuum is simply trading apples for apples.”
Islamist parties’ illiberal proclivities also give J. Scott Carpenter cause for concern. He wants to see more political space carved out for genuinely democratic forces through the reform of political party laws and laws of association. Without such changes, he fears the prospect of Iranian-style revolutions – as does Harvey Sicherman -”when economic dislocation coupled with intolerable levels of repression finally lead liberals and other non-Islamists to embrace the Islamists parties as the vanguard of the opposition.”
The “Algerian nightmare” is a specter that prevented successive administrations from securing political openings in the region, argues Tamara Cofman Wittes. Her book, Freedom’s Unsteady March, outlines the paradox that has disabled democracy promotion efforts:
The longer we abjure from promoting freedom out of fear of Islamist triumph, the further we entrench the Islamists’ political advantage in the now-tilted playing field. The more entrenched the Islamists become as the political alternative to the status quo, the more the language of Islamism becomes the language of protest politics and other voices become marginalized.
Michele Dunne rejects a broad engagement with all Islamist movements, including Hamas and Hezbollah, but also believes it is “impossible to promote democracy while advocating the exclusion of all Islamists.” There is no need for a “grand dialogue” with Islamists, but diplomats should speak with non-violent Islamists just as they speak with other opposition groups and democracy assistance groups should include Islamists in programs alongside their liberal and other counterparts.
The very least the U.S. administration should do is to oppose the repression of non-violent dissidents, writes Barry Rubin, and maintain consistent support for basic human rights including trade union and women’s rights, and fundamental freedoms of speech, worship, etc.